Episode 143 – Breathy Singing

Singers often want to sing in a breathy style – but it is usually done in a way that weakens their vocal performance.

What singers often miss is the variety of texture and intensity great singers use when sounding breathy.

In this episode, John discusses how and when to sing breathy for maximum musical effect.

Episode Transcript

Episode 143 – Breathy Singing

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. All right. If you want to bring up a topic that will bring almost unilateral exasperations amongst voice teachers, and voice teachers don’t always agree with a lot, but one thing that seems to get them a little bothered is this trend of breathy singing. And it’s not that breathy singing isn’t a legitimate vocal color. I think Billie Eilish has demonstrated that there is certainly a market for this, and the reason being is it can create really interesting textures within the voice when done properly. But the problem that you often see with singers, with students, is that they will overdo the breathy singing or they don’t understand how the breathy singing is utilized, how to make variances in their breathiness and when it’s more appropriate and less appropriate.

I’ve said this before, but when you are singing breathy in a recording studio, you are singing into very sensitive, very delicate and expensive microphones that pick up every nuance. You’re singing it in a very controlled environment. There is no other sound going on so that they’re able to, when they’re picking up your voice, they don’t have to worry about anything leaking or bleeding into the microphone and messing up the track. And also of course, when they mix and produce it, they can set your vocal perfectly within the music. When you go to live singing, that is not the case at all. You are singing into a different type of microphone. They’re not as sensitive, and the nuances are going to be a lost the thicker and more intense your music gets. I play a bit of very kind of clunky guitar, but I love the guitar.

It’s a wonderful fun instrument. I recommend it to everyone. It’s so rhythmic and it’s just the way you hold it. It’s a beautiful thing. And all singers should learn to play an instrument on some level. That’s my belief. But guitar players, and they will debate the tonal quality of one type of wood over another, even the weight of the guitar, what it does to the tone, quality, etc. And then, as people will point out and none of that matters once the bass and drum start playing and these little nuances that you’re trying to do live will be completely lost once the music comes in. It’s just going to be swallowed up. And quite frankly, you’re not in a protected environment. In other words, there’s lots of sound stage sound coming into your microphone. And if the sound person has to turn you up to the point where people can hear you over the instruments, you’re going to likely get feedback.

That annoying ring. You can’t turn the mix up that loud so you have to sing with a bit more intensity when you’re live. So your breathiness has to have different levels. Depending on the situation that you are in now you can still have breathy texture but it likely can’t be as breathy as when you are in the studio. Now let’s talk about being in the studio. You can be as breathy as you want to be, but if you listen to singers that utilize this effect from Billie Eilish, Shawn Mendez, Lana Del Ray, lots of contemporary singers. What they will do is they will vary the shades of breathiness and what I see with developing singers is that they just hear breathiness and so they think they have to sound really breathy. It’s this very monochromatic, colorless, non-changing, breathy tone that gets a little boring and what you want to be able to do is play with levels of breathiness.

Now what is the difference between breathiness and a full tone? Well, when you are exhaling air and you’re making no sound, the vocal chords are separated. They’re apart. And what they do to phonate to make sound is they come together and they buzz like trumpet player lips. Imagine you’ve blown up a balloon. We’ve all done this at some time or another. We’ve done it at kids. I may have done it more recently, I won’t admit to it, but you blow the balloon and you pinch that top and you get that ring, you get that squeaky sound. Now if you let it go slightly slack, the air starts to rush out and that somewhat akin to a breathy sound. The balloon obviously is not as malleable as our vocal folds. So we have a little more control and nuance over the vocal folds.

So you won’t quite get the breathy effect with the balloon. But that’s the idea. So number one, when you’re singing breathy, you gotta be careful how much breath you are blowing out because you’ll quickly run out of air. Breathiness– that sound is unutilized air. This closing together of the vocal folds, they are compressing the air. They’re compressing the air molecules together and building up energy. And the more energy you build, the more intense the sound wave, the louder you’re going to be. And then you can work your resonance to create fuller tones, et cetera. But the breathiness is going to create a rather weak sound wave that’s not going to have a lot of energy, especially in the higher parts of the tone. Imagine, like an EQ system where—I should explain what EQ is. Somebody commented, they don’t know what EQ is.

It’s equalization and in the way, way back when everybody had those big old blasters and you’d put the tape in it and you had the little EQ, the little bands that you could boost a little more base, a little more mids, a little more treble. That kind of interaction has gone away with the advent of streaming and listening on your phones, et cetera. And people don’t pay as much attention. But we used to play around with the EQ, and your resonance is like an EQ system, where you shape your mouth and your throat. But when the sound waves come, when they’re breathy there’s not as much energy in the highs, right? And so you can’t really be as loud. It’s just not going to be as loud no matter what you do with the vowels, et cetera. And you can play with what is called the closed quotient.

Now the closed quotient is how long the vocal folds are staying together. What percentage of time, as they’re opening and closing, are they together as opposed to open, and to explain this, just imagine your singing a note? An A-220, which is the A Below Middle-C, your vocal folds are opening and closing 220 times a second, which is remarkable. But they can open and close over a thousand times a second. It’s incredible. But the 220 times a second now in that cycle of opening and closing. If they just stay closed just for a very, very small fraction of a second and then they’re open longer, you have a low closed quotient. If they’re staying closed longer, they open quickly and close again, you have a higher closed quotient. So at 0% you have no sound. I mean it’s just pure breathiness. At100% you have no sound. You’ve just clamped your cords together.

And in between 0 and 100, you go from a breathy sound to a more balanced sound to then it starts to be a pressed sound and it starts to sound choked o. And breathiness is going to sit on the low part of that closed quotient. But you don’t want to use just one level of closed quotient. That’s going to sound really dull and boring. One thing I keep hammering to singers is you need to keep giving the listener new information. You need to change up things. Now, some singers will change up things in the extreme and they’ll, say, the next time they go to the chorus, they start changing the melody and adding lots of riffs or, a really good example of that is the Disturbed “The Sound of Silence.” And you know, he’s going from breathy to a full sound to this really distorted sound.

And so he’s giving all these different textures and of course, it went totally viral a huge vocal tour de force. But you can also do it more subtly and that’s what these breathy artists are doing. Now, usually, the breathiness is in the verse, and the breathiness will change from verse to verse. The second verse might be a little less breathy than the first, but even within the verse itself, the first verse, even within lines, they will very often do very small minute changes to the breathiness. And you can feel yourself do that. You can play with that by just holding a tone and letting it be really breathy. And then you can just feel yourself out a little more.

And that change of the level of breathiness just adds a little more interest to the listener. It reawakens the ear. Just as I’m speaking to you, if I held my voice at an absolutely at monotone, and if I made everything that I said exactly the same in terms of texture and tone color, it gets boring really fast and you’ll tune out. I will be even more boring than sometimes I think I managed to get on these podcasts. But I do appreciate your listening. Oh, I said that. But when you play with that, you add a little breathiness and then you take it away and then a little breathiness and take it away. That’s what you want to do. Again, the mistake is just the sameness of the breathy tone. So when you listen to someone who sings breathy, here’s my challenge.

I want you to listen really, really closely and that’s important for a singer is you need to listen to other singers much more deeply than a casual listener does. Your listening skills should be very different and you should be listening to all different types of things. And one of the things that you should be listening for is the tone color and the intensity and how the singer changes it. And what do they do to change it? How are they changing things up? Are they making the vowels a little more rounded so everything sounds just smoother and warmer, or are they getting everything a little brighter so everything has a little more bite, an edge? I mean we do this in our speaking voices. You are going to talk to your significant other very differently than you are going to talk to someone checking you out at the grocery store. At least I hope so because you’re going to be really freaking weird and creep the grocery store attendant out.

But we have all these different colors in our voices and we need to bring this to our singing and so I want you to really listen. When you’re listening to a breathy singer, do you just hear breathiness? Is there just one level or is there something more? Are they playing with the levels of breathiness? Now, some singers, what they’ll do is if they’re going to keep it the same level of breathiness maybe they’ll start to stack their vocal or bring in other elements. There’s constantly changing elements in the vocal performance. And again, it doesn’t have to be anything big and over the top. It can be really subtle little shifts and all you are doing is you are playing with the closed quotient, you’re playing with how much the vocal folds are resisting the air and it’s going to be usually easier to find in your lower register.

And you can just do a very simple exercise, short scale, try it really breathy, then add a little more, add a little more, see if you can keep that core. And by what I mean core is that buzzing of the fold, that it’s, that when you go breathy, you don’t lose that. You still maintain a bit of it in the breathiness. The good singers have that core. They keep a certain amount of energy because you want to project energy as a singer. You don’t want to be dull. You don’t want to be sound bored, or tired unless you’re really going for a very, very certain vibe. But just play with that breathiness, find the variation and the colors within and you’ll be much more effective as a singer.

Hey, if you want to know more about me, please visit my website, johnhenny.com and if you want to learn about the complete opposite of breathy singing, check out my how to sing belt course. It’s called Boldly Belting. Just go to boldlybelting.com, and I’ve found a kind of unique way to help bridge the gap between exercises and songs. And I work your voice to getting some really intense high belt sounds. So hey, and keep spreading the word about the podcast. I really, really appreciate it. If you want to help out, you can share. You can also go to iTunes, leave a review. I’d really, really appreciate it. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye. Bye.